In this 5 On interview, editor Jim Thomsen discusses freelance editing, story craft, favorite authors, and his own authorial aspirations.
Jim Thomsen has been a full-time, self-sustaining book-manuscript editor since 2010 and has worked on more than five hundred projects for nearly three hundred clients.
His specialty is the line edit, which he defines as a “second line of defense after the developmental edit and before the copy edit.” Line editing improves the quality of the prose, red-flags story implausibilities and inconsistencies, removes unnecessary repetition, checks the subtleties of word usage, and restructures sentences and paragraphs so that they flow more smoothly together.
He also does developmental editing for select clients and structured copy editing. His clients are primarily self-publishing genre-fiction authors, and traditionally published authors who write on spec or don’t trust their in-house editing process.
Jim came to manuscript editing from the newspaper world, where he spent twenty-four years as a reporter, copy editor, and managing editor. He lives in his hometown on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and can often be found exercising his delete key in one of the island’s many coffee shops and pubs.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: From what you’ve observed in your experience as a fiction editor, what do novelists need the most help with (even if they aren’t necessarily hiring you for that particular service): copy editing or content editing, and what kind of problems are you seeing (in that area)?
JIM THOMSEN: Content editing. They also need copy editing, but everybody needs copy editing, even if you’re the most erudite and educated writer on Earth. What I find more problematic—and more intriguing—is how writers struggle with the basics of story craft.
Probably the three biggest problems I’ve encountered in my work with nearly three hundred clients are:
- A relentless need to put the story on pause and explain the backstory to everything. To those clients I say, “Would you want to watch a movie that’s dominated by voiceover narration?”
- Dull, hi-how-are-you, subtext-free, squarely-on-the-nose dialogue that subverts the smartest maxim I’ve ever heard, from author Amy Bloom: “Dialogue isn’t conversation; it’s conversation’s greatest hits.”
- The failure to imbue every passage and page with what my favorite writing-craft guru, James Scott Bell, terms “pleasurable uncertainty.” In other words, a failure to understand what keeps readers turning from one page to the next. What I’ve found is that a lot of writers don’t really want to torture their characters on the road to happiness or catharsis; they just want to write thinly veiled wish-fulfillment fantasies.
You’re working on your own novel, a murder mystery. Who are your favorites in the genre who are writing now, and why?
It’s more a character-driven crime novel than a traditional mystery. There are surprise reveals, but the story doesn’t hinge on them. Probably my favorite crime novelist, and my most direct influence and inspiration, is Peter Abrahams, who writes lean, rich, watertight tales of dark but hopeful humanity, and does so at every level—middle-grade, young adult, adult, and as of this year, a new series for young children. He’s my hero because he’s never given up amid a lot of highs (having Robert DeNiro star in the film adaptation of one of his books) and lows (having played himself out in the book industry under his given name). He just keeps trying new things while staying true to himself and his voice, and if one thing doesn’t work, he simply tries something else. And, relatively late in life, he’s hit it big under his pen name, Spencer Quinn, with a prolific and wonderful series of detective novels—sort of cozy and mostly not—that are narrated from the point of view of a dog.
I had the privilege of meeting him last summer at my hometown bookstore and had the chance to tell him that his books, for me, were “portable MFAs in perfect writing craft,” and that he has the best show-don’t-tell game in the business. He seemed startled but pleased.
Others I admire include Stephen Dobyns, Carl Hiaasen, Lou Berney, Wallace Stroby, Steve Brewer, Lynn Kostoff, Max Tomlinson, Don Winslow, Scott Phillips, Sean Doolittle, George Pelecanos, Gillian Flynn, Alissa Nutting, C.J. Box, Michael Koryta, Richard Price, Karin Slaughter, Bill Cameron, Johnny Shaw, Donald Westlake, Elizabeth Little, Gwen Florio, Theresa Schwegel, and Peter Leonard.
You’ve said one of your tasks as an editor is to strip away “artifice, ornamentation and overwriting that gets in the way.” Many writers take pride in the personal styles they cultivate over many years, and some are sparer with words than others. For those who would say they’re not “overwriting” but simply writing true to their style, can you offer an example of ornamentation that could be considered part of the author’s style and an example of that which gets in the way of otherwise clear writing?
To me, there are two kinds of offending writing along those lines. One, as I said above, is over-exposition. If your story depends to an extreme degree on the events that precede it, I would suggest that your story probably starts in the wrong place. I occasionally have clients who write fantasy and sci-fi novels in which they seem more interested in building a world than in telling a story. I understand that readers of such books have a certain tolerance for a certain amount of that, but the story’s the thing, and some get that less than others.
As much as it pains me to say this, as I’m a huge fan of his, one of the worst offenders in this regard is Stephen King. He is a great fair regular old-school yarn-spinner, but, my God, he sometimes takes the long way around the barn, to borrow an expression of my dad’s. And while he’s generally got good instincts, he sometimes loses his way in the thickets of his backstories and side stories and, and as a result, has written a good many novels (Dreamcatcher, Duma Key, Lisey’s Story, Bag of Bones, etc.) that I consider nearly unreadable.
The other kind of offender to me, is the writer who subordinates character, story, setting, and practically every other structured story value to “voice.” I’m not saying it’s wrong, because that’s for the writer alone to decide, but … well, here’s a little sidebar about my editing practice: I make it clear that I look to take on projects with the goal of sharpening them, line by line, for their maximum commercial potential while preserving their integrity. If the authors aren’t on board with that, if they just want straight copy editing in the service of a book I know has no chance to find an audience, then I’m not really interested in the job.
A lot of voice-driven writers seem to insist on limiting their audience as much as possible out of their insistence that it’s perfectly okay to pull a reader out of a story and ask them to admire the author and their bag of prose tricks. And many of them, after an initial flurry of critical infatuation and commercial success, see their sales sink as their acts become tired. Tom Robbins comes to mind, as does Lorrie Moore and David Foster Wallace and Aimee Bender and William Gass and Martin Amis. There’s a not-so-fine line between challenging a reader and wearing them out through a willful insistence on the primacy of interior voice above all else. Some writers’ voices broadcast on our personal frequencies; most do not, is my observation and experience. I prefer working with authors who have a strong voice and an equally strong storytelling sense. I wish there were more Richard Prices and Elmore Leonards and Laura Lippmans and Shirley Jacksons out there.
One of the worst offenders is a book you and I have discussed privately, the much-praised “literary thriller” Descent by Tim Johnston. I could go on for some time about how awful I think that novel is, but in the context of this question I’ll simply say that it wholly subordinates story values to voice, and in doing so, it makes for a dreary, draggy reading experience that’s not redeemed by the self-conscious prettiness of the author’s fussy, overpolished prose and empty, masturbatory exercises in subdued mood. Much has been made of the author’s credentials in higher academia, and that unfortunately gives ample ammunition to those who despise “MFA writing.” And I think that’s an argument we’re all tired of.
Which writer(s) taught you the most about writing, whether how to or how not to write?
Lots, and at various stages of life. I found my love of crime stories, and the first inklings of my own crime-writing sensibility, at age ten or eleven, when I literally alternated between children’s stories like the Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigators mysteries and the true-crime books from my mom’s shelves: Helter Skelter and The Stranger beside Me and Blood Money and the like.
As a lonely, isolated boarding-school student, I discovered the power of robust writing and powerful imagination in the stories of Dean Koontz and Clive Cussler and Stephen King. I also, later, discovered the danger of becoming too infatuated with King, that in trying to tap into that turbocharged literary energy of his, it was too easy to go off the rails.
As a college student in the mid-1980s, I discovered Vintage Contemporaries novels (seduced by slick packaging like the pastel-sporting malleable Reagan-era suburbanite I was!). Through writers like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Ethan Canin, and T.C. Boyle, I discovered the new pleasure of cooled and even chilled prose, of polishing sentences until each became a vacuum-sealed package of exquisite perfection.
That didn’t last, but from them I took away my first lessons about writing as rewriting, writing as craft. They taught me something not only about craft but experience—in short, to get some. These young writers sailed in Maine and hitchhiked through Greece and ranched in Australia and had sex and took drugs and talked philosophy and spent nights in jail and woke up naked almost everywhere. Me, not so much.
In recent years, through my editing practice and my own growing powers of critical curation, I found my people and my place: fiction that uses crime to say something larger about a time and a place and the people who inhabit them. Its practitioners include the folks I listed above, as well as my very favorite, Peter Abrahams. (And also, now, Stephen King, who won the this year’s Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel for his first novel of crime fiction, Mr. Mercedes.)
I won’t get into the whole genre vs. literary thing here, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of fiction that is packaged as genre for marketing purposes but actually strives to say as much about people and place and change and challenge as the highest-minded novels packaged as literary fiction. Those are the books I like to read, and the books I want to write.
Now and then you also write book reviews. What two key pieces of writing advice would you give writers as (a) an editor, and then (b) a book reviewer?
As an editor:
- The best writing comes from what you leave out, or take out—what you obliquely and even teasingly suggest but don’t spell out. Done with good instinct and skill, that creates that essential sense of “pleasurable uncertainty” that I think every work or fiction or narrative nonfiction should have.
- Torture the hell out of your characters, especially the ones you love, with conflicts equally external and internal. Readers don’t want to read about characters who are happy and get happier. Whether your story is driven by character, plot, or voice, your book should contain no shortage of gains and reversals and, ultimately, resolution—or at least a broad hint toward one.
As a reviewer:
- Be clear about your motives. The book world is one of relationships, and we are constantly counseled to be nice and not damage our standing or ambitions in that world, but honesty is the higher value in my opinion. If a book is bad, there is value in making sure others know it. If it is good, the same. But a review full of pulled punches to preserve an unspoken agenda is useless. I have nothing but contempt for those who say they write only positive reviews. There’s too much puffbucketry in the world as it is.
- Show your work. Just as good writing involves showing not telling, so good criticism involves backing arguments with specifics and clear rationales. Strive to analyze, not opine. If you can’t or won’t, then likely your reasons for writing the review are less than honorable ones—jealousy or personal pique toward the author being at the top of that particular list.
5 on Publishing
It’s been argued that writers are better off waiting to find a publisher who can provide quality editing rather than self-publishing and hiring a freelance or independent editor. The rationale is that freelance editors, unlike those at publishing houses, don’t have an official system in place to ensure quality. I can understand why writers might come across that advice and think, “Good point. What’s at stake for a freelance editor I hire? How do I know they’re going to do their best, and that their best will be any good?” How do you respond to this concern?
I can speak only for me. I do no marketing. I land jobs by word-of-mouth, and I think that’s because after much fumbling around in my early years as a freelance editor I found my confidence and craft and niche as an editor who can not only do rigorous copy-editing but demonstrate a sharp eye for what works and doesn’t work in a story. Those elevated stakes bring a fair amount of personal ego as well as professional pride into every job I take on, and I think both are reflected in my spirited manuscript notes and editorial memos. They show my clients that I have skin in their game and am not just another bloodless professional.
That heightened involvement is why I think I have a number of loyal return clients as well as a steady stream of inquiries from prospective clients in my inbox at any given time. Just as I want to see passion in a client’s writing, so the client wants see passion on a near-partnership level in my editing. And they get it from me, and it’s all genuine. I’m nearly fifty years old. I don’t want to waste my time doing work I’m not passionate about just to make money. That’s why I’ve passed, possibly to my detriment, on periodic opportunities to do steady but soulless contract copy-editing work. Being a style-spouting automaton without permission to speak up on story problems is not at all interesting to me.
I understand the concern some people have about the editing of self-published books. In publishing-house editing, the editor gets veto power over story and word choices. Ideally the relationship is seen and practiced as a partnership between writer and editor, but if there’s a disagreement, the editor, often in consultation with the marketing department, gets to win the argument because the editor’s employer owns the rights to the book. In self-publishing, the writer always gets the last word, no matter how strongly the editor feels about their choices. It’s a legitimate concern that often comes down to how much the writer is willing to learn and to let go. And I will admit that I’ve had clients who have simply refused to take my best advice, and taken into the world novels that in my opinion are not ready to be published and, as a result, are doomed to fail. Not to say I know everything, but I’m definitely more objective about the work than the authors are, and that’s not a small thing.
That doesn’t mean that editing in the traditional houses is always superior. A few years ago, I wrote a published review of a mystery novel that was put out by an imprint of one of the Big Five publishing houses in New York. The novel was awful, and not just in the usual ways. The story was so rife with errors of consistency and continuity, it became clear that the novel had received only a copy edit and a “coverage” edit for its commercial prospects, and not a true developmental edit or an absolutely crucial line edit.
From what I hear from my traditionally published friends and clients, good wall-to-wall editing of a given book is less the rule than the luck of the draw—not just the right publishing house, but the right agent and the right acquiring editor and the right team assembled by the acquiring editor. If there’s any break in the links of that chain as it’s being forged, the book can be doomed. And given how short-staffed publishing houses are, and how often editors and agents change jobs or leave the industry, I suspect a substantial percentage of books are ruined between the time a manuscript is acquired and the galley hits the printer.
What’s your feeling about the level of time and attention writers put into their own work before looking for an editor? Do you get the sense you’re seeing a lot of first draft work, or do the projects you receive seem to have been considerably edited/revised/reworked such that you’re receiving a last and best draft? What do you think is the writer’s responsibility when it comes to pre-editor editing?
It took me a couple of years to get my bearings on this. And before I understood the levels of necessary rigor that must accompany every manuscript once it’s handed off to someone like me, I worked on a lot of “vomit drafts”—unrevised, uncritiqued first drafts. And at times got deep into the work before I realized I was dealing with something that couldn’t be saved.
That led to some awkward and painful conversations and forced me to figure out that I can’t really be the best line editor I can be for a client unless the client does their part. That usually means (a) one or more revisions on their own before they hand off their manuscripts for critiques from writing peers; (b) more revisions based on those critiques; or (c) work with a developmental editor in lieu of (a) and (b). Nobody is good enough to bypass this process, and nobody should hand a vomit draft to an editor and say, “Here, you fix this.” If for no other reasons than (a) I’d charge much more for such salvage work than you’d be willing to pay; and (b) I can’t respect a client who isn’t willing to work as hard as I am.
To be a successful writer, you have to be a successful professional. And that means understanding that your hardest work begins where your first draft ends. If you don’t get that, then I don’t want to work with you. Life’s just too short. Well, mine, anyway.
Had any of the books you’ve edited been rejected by a publisher before you worked on them and then accepted post-editing, and if so, what do you think did the trick—professional polish, added commercial appeal, trendiness…?
I don’t know for certain that I’ve worked on a book that was rejected by a publisher, then self-published (after my editing) and later picked up by a publisher. I do know of several instances in which the author of a self-published book that I edited was approached by an agent or a publishing house. What I was told in those cases was that the books in question were in “hot” genres or had hit a “sweet spot” of sales and review averages (on Amazon) that made somebody in the book industry think there was more money to be made from the book with a wider marketing and publicity campaign, as well as a fresh edit and a new cover concept.
I would say those offers were rejected about two-thirds of the time, as the author essentially said, “Well, hell, if I’m doing that well on my own, why shouldn’t I keep on doing well on my own and making 100 percent of the profit?”
In some cases I know the offers limited the authors’ rights and profit potential. When the offers were accepted, the authors got pretty good advances, or were signed for multiple books, or being published traditionally was their endgame. I would say all had decent but not outlandish platforms; they all did what they were supposed to do in building bridges in the book community and connecting with readers through the big social-media channels. In general they demonstrated themselves to be enthusiastic, personable ambassadors of their work, with work ethics to match.
You’ve said you’ll probably self-publish your novel when it’s ready. Why? You’re writing in a highly marketable genre that typically appeals to publishers.
One, I know the odds of success as the traditional publishing industry defines it are long; and two, I’m too much of a control freak to cede control to others who may not have my best interests at heart. And three, my novel is rich in the setting, themes, and culture of my hometown region (Kitsap County, Washington state), so why not try to sell as many books to people who relate as strongly as possible to what’s in my book? So, given my history and my connections where I live, I’m planning a local-immersion strategy for my book that involves a lot of personal connection, from library to book club to neighborhood pub to coffee house.
The authors I admire most—friends like Craig Lancaster and longtime neighbors like Jonathan Evison—have built their readerships one hug or handshake at a time. As such they have devoted fans who like them as people as much as they like the books the people produce. I like that. I like the idea of selling me as well as a book. To me, that is the proper platform for lasting success. I’ll do that while making my book available on the commonly accepted national and global channels like Amazon. But it’s not necessarily my goal to go on a national bookstore tour or have my book for sale in the Barnes & Noble in Evansville, Indiana, or be reviewed in the New York Times. I see those things as byproducts of success, not hallmarks. I’d rather see if I can sell ten thousand copies within a fifty-mile radius of my house.
You pay close attention to the world of writing and publishing (and frequently engage in conversations online that are strong in opinions, but logical and fair). What do you see in today’s publishing climate that is encouraging, and what do you see that frustrates you?
I’m encouraged that people are still writing, still mostly enthusiastic, and still occasionally making a living at it. I’m encouraged that there is so much good writing-craft advice that’s so easily accessible and affordable. I’m encouraged that virtually every doomsday prediction about book publishing has largely failed to come to pass.
I’m frustrated by the fact that publishers still treat most authors like shit, and that authors are largely content to be treated like shit as the tradeoff for continuing to be published, however usurious the terms. I’m frustrated at the preteen tribalism of many authors, who united against Amazon—a company that’s made a lot careers and money for authors—and then fell strangely silent and acquiescent in the face of transparent outrages like the industry-standard 25 percent royalty on e-books. I’m frustrated that so many writers lack the courage to work with their own voice and vision, and instead chase the market with the futile mindlessness of a dog chasing a car.
And I’m frustrated that writing is so damn hard some days. And encouraged by the fact that I never get completely discouraged by such days.
Thank you, Jim.